by Prof P. V. Indiresan Monday, May 15, 2006 in The Hindu Business Line
Usually, media memory is short. Most stories are forgotten at the end of the day; few last a week. Unusually, interest in the reservation controversy has not died down even after two months. Evidently, this controversy touches a raw nerve; people cannot get over their hurt easily.
Considering the degree of interest in the topic, there is surprisingly few hard facts known about the issue. IITs have had reservation for students belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes for over 30 years. There is no public information of how the beneficiaries have fared, or how well they have performed in the profession compared to regular students, or compared to SC/ST students from other less prestigious colleges.
Tamil Nadu experience
Tamil Nadu has the longest experience with reservation. With almost 80 per cent admissions and posts reserved, it has the most extensive application of that device. The Tamil Nadu experience can be described both as a success and as a failure. It is a success because backward castes have wrested the leadership — both in the academic and administrative spheres — apart from acquiring total command of the political space. Not only have the backward castes taken command, they have also made Tamil Nadu one of the most successful States.
Reservation in Tamil Nadu can also be declared as a failure on two counts: Even after three-quarters of a century, the backward castes are unwilling to compete openly. There are third, even fourth generation beneficiaries of reservation who are unable to get over their dependence on the handicaps reservation provides for them. It appears, reservation is a crutch, not a remedy.
The success of backward castes in Tamil Nadu appears to be partly due to emigration of upper castes: There are few Brahmins, Mudaliars, Naidus, Pillais or Chettiars to contend with; quite a few have migrated out of the State. There is no analysis how far the loss of so much human capital has hurt (or helped) the State.
Yet, it would be incorrect to conclude that backward castes can never stand up to competition. Once again, we have no hard data to rely on. However, anecdotal evidence points to the view that competent persons among the backward castes never flaunt their caste badge; they want to be known and respected for what they achieve — they stand tall. On the other hand, weaker but ambitious persons make their caste a fetish. They make noise louder and frequently; they get noticed more often.
Consider the visibility of capable students in the job market. They know what they want. They get selected promptly and vanish from the scene after no more than one or two job interviews. The least competitive ones are unsure of where they can succeed. They try again and again only to be rejected. They are noticeable everywhere. Particularly when they wear the caste badge, they will be shortlisted even when not well qualified.
Fooled by noise
With competent students appearing but few times, the less competent ones appearing frequently, the latter appear to be far larger in numbers than they actually are. Logically, the proportion of competent backward castes must be several times higher than what they appear to be in selection committees. That is like the case of a farmer who ruefully remarked after promising to supply a thousand frogs "the noise sure fooled me!"
There is yet another reason why backward students under-perform. As a natural corollary of the Reservation Principle, teaching posts have been reserved on caste basis. That is a cardinal error. What poor students need most are the best teachers available, not the least qualified. Dr Sowell, a distinguished professor from Stanford, was once asked on his visit to Madras (as it was then) whether he would prefer Black teachers to teach Black students (Prof Sowell is Black.) His answer was, "I do not care whether the teacher is White, Black or Blue; I want the best!"
Quality teaching, the key
Unfortunately, this basic principle has been discarded by our policymakers, who have grossly under-estimated the importance of teaching quality. In the process, they have run down state-run schools. In the past fifty years, the population of Chennai has increased almost ten times. Yet, many schools run by the City Corporation have been closed for "want of students". In truth, it cannot be that the students, but the quality of teachers selected that was found wanting.
It is a recorded fact that discipline among school teachers has come down. Across the country, half the time teachers are not attending to class work at all. It is a fact that most students in Delhi's Corporation schools cannot do simple arithmetic — multiply two-digit numbers — even after five years of education. Yet, as one NIIT experiment has shown, given a chance, they can pick up computer skills on their own.
In the prevailing ethos of reservation, a person can get the benefits of reservation without making any payment in return. That contravenes a natural law that is colloquially described as "there is no free lunch". In engineering, such systems are known as "perpetual-motion" machines, machines that run forever without any input. For every transaction, there has to be entries on both sides of the ledger. A price has to be paid for the gains made by reservation. There is no escape from that law. Then, what is the price the beneficiaries of reservation pay for the benefit they get? One price they have paid is lowered quality of education in state-run schools, inferior opportunities to learn; in consequence, endemic poverty too. Is that price worth paying?
As one correspondent has pointed out, reservation is like declaring a boundary scored in a cricket game as a six if hit by a backward caste player. Such artificial boost appears beneficial. It may not be. As one SC student remarked: "I won a degree in the IIT but lost my self-image." How many students would have done better with their lives if they had been exposed to what they can master, instead of being subjected to a difficult drill for which they were not trained, we do not know.
How far has the Reservation Policy has helped the poor, has reduced the rich-poor gap? The average family income of SC students in IIM Ahmedabad is twice that of the others. Is that an exception, or is it true of other institutions too? That is the problem: We have no data on which to base reasoned decisions. Our political masters are unwilling to generate much needed information on this issue, nor or they willing to consider any alternative. At the same time, they have acquired the power to declare as constitutionally illegal any institution that operates on a caste-free basis.
Friend or foe?
Is everyone who promotes reservation a friend of the backward castes? Is everyone who questions reservation at university level an enemy of backward castes?
Who hurts backward castes more: Those who deny good school education or those who want well-run schools?
A proposal to identify and give special education to talented backward caste students has been before the government for over 25 years, and still finds no support. Strange are the ways of our democracy, of government of some people, by some people for themselves.